When I watch fantasy or science fiction, I find that worldbuilding is paramount to my immersion. I remember the first time I watched the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and being so swept away by the vastness of it all – the panoramic shots of New Zealand that were so shockingly perfect as a real-life stand-in for Middle-Earth, the elegant grandeur of the Elven realms of Lothlórien and Rivendell, and the austere beauty of the Dwarven caves all made me endlessly curious about the rest of the world that Tolkien had created.
But since that first time, I’ve realized that there aren’t many fictional worlds anymore that surprise me. Through many years of consuming different forms of science fiction and fantasy, it feels like I’ve begun to develop such a familiarity with common tropes for worldbuilding that it’s become too easy to see a new, fictional world and label it as, “Lord of the Rings, but just a bit grittier”, or “this is literally just Star Wars”. There have simply just been so many genre-defining, cultural behemoths when it comes to these fictional worlds that it’s hard not to compare.
This is where Love, Death & Robots surprises me. When I watched its first season last year, I recall being pleasantly surprised at how effortless it felt to get invested in each different world that was presented. It didn’t matter if the world was the ethereal, space-faring world illustrated in “Zima Blue” or the steampunk-influenced ancient China portrayed in “Good Hunting”; I was hooked on every concept. So much so that when Season 2 came out earlier this year, I binged the whole season with my housemate in one night.
So why does Love, Death & Robots pull me in when other shows have failed? For me, Love, Death & Robots works because of its structure as an anthology series and because its speculative nature speaks to stresses and fears that are deeply rooted in the state of our modern lives.
As an anthology series, Love, Death & Robots has a distinct advantage over longer-form shows. It can hit hard with an interesting premise without having to worry about where to take that premise over the course of many episodes. Take the second season episode “Pop Squad” for example. In this story, citizens in a world burdened with overpopulation are given the choice to live indefinitely if they forego the right to have a child. The episode follows the life of a cop whose duty is to hunt down citizens who are illegally harboring children, and it traces his internal conflict as he begins to question the morality of his duty. Without revealing significant spoilers, this episode hits hard emotionally and left me hungry for more in a way that I hadn’t felt about a story in a while.
However, it also made me wonder if I would’ve been disappointed by the premise and the direction that the story would have gone if this concept were made into a full-blown series of its own. By this point in my experience as a consumer of media, I’ve picked up so many shows due to an enticing premise, only to drop it a few episodes later because the story lost momentum, or it felt like the show was relying on the novelty of a concept to keep viewers interested rather than developing the core elements of a good show (such as intriguing characters and strong writing).
The anthology format of Love, Death & Robots avoids this problem altogether because each story never stays long enough for this audience scrutiny to happen to a great extent. I’d go even as far as to say that it actively benefits each story because the ambiguity of certain premises encourages viewers to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. When we’re allowed to do this, we can rationalize explanations that are suitable to our own individual tastes, and so we won’t ever be disappointed by someone else’s explanation or worldbuilding. It also gives viewers space to breathe. We aren’t ever inundated by exposition because we just need to know enough about the world to understand the story. And lastly, there’s also the simple sense of wonder that viewers are imparted with when the scaffolding of a world is presented but a full understanding of the world still eludes us. We can see what the world has the potential to be, yet there are so many unanswered questions that we simply want to know more – hence the hunger for more content that I felt after watching episodes like “Pop Squad”.
Another reason why Love, Death & Robots stands out to me is because of how some of the stories presented reflect current or near-future concerns that we in the US as a collective society are beginning to worry about. It’s no surprise that the media we create often mirror our thoughts and feelings about the world that we are born into and mold for ourselves. One striking example of this is how the Godzilla mythos was conceived in post-World War II Japan after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Godzilla was a metaphor for the destruction caused by these incidents.
Love, Death & Robots is similarly reactive. In a world where our technology is quickly evolving, there’s a lot of uncertainty in how we will react to different scenarios. Again, “Pop Squad” serves as one of the best examples of this. Through its depiction of a world overburdened by population, we see a world that isn’t quite like our own just yet but is plausibly a future version of our own – and this is where our fear and curiosity fuels our engagement in the show. For many of us, we simply don’t think about overpopulation on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t affect our lives, and it’s not something that we as individuals can necessarily take active actions against. But despite its arguable relevance to our daily lives, we see hints and glimmers of parts of our global community being affected by it. News snippets about India’s extreme population and China’s one-child policy, which had only been recently expanded to allow for two children in 2016, warn that even though this isn’t an issue that is top of mind for many, it has the potential to become highly influential in the practice of our daily lives.
This is the balance that is achieved by the topics broached by Love, Death & Robots. Topics like the evolution of AI, the perils of space travel, and the morality of life-extending medicine are still mostly foreign to us, yet we can still recognize them as problems on the horizon that we must confront eventually. To approach them in fiction before they become a reality might be considered a way to think through these problems and to simulate our reaction to them, almost as a way to rehearse for the real thing.
When I was younger, this kind of speculative fiction used to scare me. Shows like Black Mirror were unsettling to me, a cause of distress because they seemed to strip away the warmth and comfort I saw in the characters of other shows in exchange for the cold sterility of post-apocalyptic worlds overrun by technology. I understand that some of this is intentional. At best, the themes and topics proposed by this type of fiction are meant to stir dialogue, to galvanize people into thinking critically about the world that they inhabit, and to jolt people from sitting too comfortably in the lull of normalcy and daily life. But sometimes these just felt too bleak and hopeless to stir my interest.
My mindset has changed now. Although some of the scenarios presented in the stories of Love, Death & Robots are still terrifying, I’ve learned to contextualize them differently. Instead of fearing for the future, the message I take away from these scenarios is to appreciate the present and understand how to change things for the better so that these scenarios don’t have to become reality. I can take heart in the fact that our current reality isn’t what’s presented in Love, Death & Robots. After each 15 minute episode, I can take a deep breath and realize that it’s over, and that what I witnessed was someone else’s creation and not an unavoidable future. I can acknowledge the warnings that each story conveys and work with others to act responsibly to curb the risk of these warnings becoming threats, and I can relish the time that we have to turn things around.
What’s fascinating to me is that I can have this reaction after every single episode of Love, Death & Robots. This is the power of Love, Death & Robots. Ultimately, it’s effective because of how concisely it can present an engaging idea that is both relevant to our lives yet so fantastic that we can’t help but use our own imaginations to engage with the stories. We are active viewers when we watch Love, Death & Robots, and the show capitalizes on that to suck us in more and more. Before we know it, an episode is over, and then a season is over, and we are left with a mix of wonderment, fear, and hope that is hard to come by in other series. Love, Death & Robots is a gem to me and I’m eagerly waiting for more.